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Getting to know your users versus the privacy debate

April 11, 2009 by koobs

One of our long time regular users recently posted the results of two surveys posted on our German community forum that asked users what version of Miranda they used and how often they submitted bug reports.

While it only offers a small sample size on 2 questions, I believe the underlying desire to seek out and understand information about individuals and groups is something we can all relate to.

Fast-forward to the software development context, and the road gets very muddy indeed. There is and always has been a fragile but symbiotic relationship between developers and users. Developers want to exercise their creative and technical abilities to produce something they can be proud of, and users want to be empowered with tools that work with their goals in mind and take into account their individuality.

Why am I babbling on about intangible and nebulous words like empowered, individual and creative? You can’t do these things in any wholesome capacity without KNOWING the individual.

What has all of this got to do with Miranda? Here’s the punchline. We don’t know our users. We think we know our users.

Here is where is it gets hard. How do we move forward? Traditionally and still today there exists 3 main methods; Guesswork, Surveys and Software.

Guesswork – This is the defacto standard. It consists of anecdotal, intuitive feelings about the representative needs of the users. It has brought us a long way, but it suffers from some big problems. It is haphazard, fragmented and not quantitative.

Surveys – This is a method used to add weight and credibility to an argument. They can be very useful if structured correctly, interpreted within context and from an unbiased viewpoint. It suffers some problems too, including small sample sizes, misinterpretation and false inferences.

Software – This is where the software gathers key peices of information from a user and is put into a database where it can be sorted, grouped and aggregated. It suffers from some major roadblocks. Scope, Privacy and Trust.

The following issues come up when looking at the software approach to knowing your users:

  • Purpose – What is all of this for?
  • Transparency – How and why is it being collected?
  • Incentive – What’s in it for me?
  • Permission – Should I be asked to participate?
  • Notification – Should I be told when I’m participating?
  • Opt-in/out – Is it on or off by default?
  • Scope – What information is being collected?
  • Relevance – Is the information related to the purpose?
  • Interpretation – How and what will it be used for?
  • Feedback – Will you keep me updated?

I had a wonderfully charged discussion with a project team member I have a lot of respect for, and it became quickly and abundantly clear that this issue has some very deep and important roots that need to be understood and addressed first before any ambitious knowledge project is even tabled.

My motivation is to see Miranda the project and the software grow and evolve positively. I believe there is immense value in our users and contributors who would like to see the same. I believe that equipping ourselves with knowledge is a key component of that growth.

I welcome constructive feedback and critical thinking from the community about why things are important to them, and what we can do to make Miranda as a whole a better experience.

Edit: A couple of people have mentioned that the post left them baffled or a little unclear in it’s purpose. This was half intentional, and half indicative of how raw the thought process was when posting.

My thesis is that knowledge is critical, that we don’t have the amount or quality necessary to base informed decisions on, and that I’d (we’d) like to do something about it. Sharing thoughts and promoting discussion was a first step.

Comments

  1. All of these issues are covered in sociological literature… Too bad my Social Research courses start next year, I thought I’d finally be able to contribute to an open source project without writing any code. :)

    By invertedquestionmark on April 12th, 2009 at 12:36 am #
  2. There’s plenty of non-technical stuff people can contribute to :]

    http://wiki.miranda-im.org/How_to_help

    Ta for the feedback

    By koobs on April 12th, 2009 at 12:43 am #
  3. The problem is, that developers often do not listen to users. Most of time developers develop stuff their own way, indenpendently of what users think or suggest. They listen only when they want to fix a bug for their old-style system, which they developed yesterday.

    Miranda misses a lots of simple details, which are not present even when suggested thousands times, like why doesn’t file transfer windows even FLASH when transfer is completed?

    That’s only one of many things which are problem.

    I’m looking forward to testing modern options, hope it will be present in next build

    By zodiack on April 12th, 2009 at 9:21 am #
  4. @zodiack, it cuts both ways.
    Sure some things are “bad by design” and more or less easy to fix, e.g.for me this blinking tray icon for auth request is the most annoying thing at all. What about a simple messagebox?
    On the other site, look in the tabSrmm or Clist_modern options, “Hey I want …”, “Here!…”, regardless that only 1-2 users “need” this feature and 1000 users are only confuse or get errors. Some other feature requests… Miranda is not a coffee machine. ;)
    Who want to decide what is a good feature request, what is only a waste of time?
    —————
    And can someone remember the problems with this UUID number? I think this discussion was a good example about what happens if some very important things changed and there are some plugins that not support this new thing.
    Unfortunately I fear that some things can’t change without the loss of some old plugins.
    —————
    And another one. Koobs wrote here or in “How to help” in the wiki about the delvelopers.
    I can’t say how I thank the current main developers, Borkra and Ghazan, and the other “core/protocol/plugin” developers rainwater, mlu, Joe, the_leech, nightwish,vpavlychko,Pescuma, Scott Ellis, nullbie, Eblis, … (sorry if I forgot YOU… ;) )
    but how many peoples 10-20? Only a few people develope the main Miranda.

    But when I see on the other side that some other developers spend all the free time to develope the 10th version of the same plugin, enhance the own plugins with useless things or develope new plugins which can …, I think some things goes in wrong direction. Miranda is a messenger, it seems to me that some developers forget this, is it really an impossible mission that 5 developers make ONE plugin?
    ————-
    That was my two cents for the moment.

    By Lastwebpage on April 12th, 2009 at 11:47 am #
  5. While I believe that there is some data in the posted surveys, it is also true, as said in a post in that discussion, that the results are skewed by the fact that most forum participants are .8 users while an unspoken population of .7 users still exist.
    I recently Downloaded and watched the development Swarm Movie from the nightly Build’s website. It gave me MUCH more respect and understanding for “Who want to decide what is a good feature request, what is only a waste of time?”
    (I admit I was upset with Borka on our initial interaction over the Weather Plugin and Now I see how the above quote can come into play in that interaction)
    Truthfully I’m pretty certain that .8 is Highly adopted, however I’m one with the core developers that there are just a few things in it still waiting to be finished to the point of an actual release.
    I think VI and the VI site out to be a LARGE indication on the Software Side of things mentioned in you post. It already is a opt in/out thing, a User can choose whether or not to upload their VI, but you (developers) can only work with those who choose TO upload it.
    Miranda is a Wonderfully Modular program, but, just like the PalmOS, the more you use add-ons the more likely a bug will rear it’s head.
    I do wonder if download counts attached to both the .7 “Stable” and the .8 “development” may answer some of this question, as well as to look at “packs” and see the version they are more likely (median/Average) to include.

    By Nergal on April 12th, 2009 at 1:09 pm #
  6. Hi!
    I wanna talk about:
    – our polls
    – bug tracker
    – continue to work on a plugin

    First, I want to say that I really like you guys respond in such a way!
    I think it is import to have one place where you can report bugs and make feature request: the bug tracker… well… I heard people saying: “The bug tracker is stupid, because some developers are doing whatever they want to do. It is just necessary in terms to make Miranda IM a serious project. It is a ‘must have’ with no real function”. That is one way you can look at it. I don’t want to say that this is right, but there is grain of truth in it…. I don’t know how much developers talk about further development, but sometimes I have got the feeling, reminding you of moving the Jabber items from the main menu to the status menu, that the development is not consistently.

    Yeah… the polls… Biased sample… ^^ yes, there weren’t many participants and these polls cannot be generalized. Seesaw… there is some truth in these polls! After releasing a new testing build people start to “report” bugs in the (German) forum. And people confirm these… but nothing more happens…. they talk and talk… confirm and confirm… and after writing 1/2 or 1 page about that I have a look in the bug tracker and there is not a bug report! It is like: “hm… here is a fire… someone SHOULD call the fire brigade. hm… anyone SHOULD do something.” Yes, someone who uses the testing should know how to report a bug, well and really report them! It is the same with the “Miranda packs”… specially for beginners… well… I have never seen a guy who uses a Miranda pack reporting a bug.
    Now, I maybe talked to much about that… concluding I would like to say, that there are many people who use a testing in opposition to its real purpose!

    I agree with Lastwebpage…. I would love plugin developer to continue their work and to continue other people’s work.

    Coming to the end, I want to thank you for developing Miranda IM. I hope you did not misunderstand me.

    Keep it up!

    By 0123hallo on April 14th, 2009 at 7:37 am #